On Monday, May 24, we were advised by VicHealth that a COVID-19 positive individual attended our business, JUMP! Swim Schools Bundoora, on the previous Friday. We were one of the first exposure sites in the third major outbreak in Melbourne.
What happened next was a whirlwind. The whole experience was very difficult — knowing that we had customers who were unwell, having to shut our doors for an unknown period, having to stand down staff. But it has been a great learning experience in managing a crisis and a reminder that the hard work you do ahead of time is what makes all the difference in the moment.
Here are four things I learnt through the experience, in the hope it may help other businesses facing the same challenge:
1. Collaboration is essential
The first thing we did was notify the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) of our contact list for the exposure period. Following that, working with them continued to be a critical part of managing the response, and they were very helpful in guiding us through the entire process. It’s important to work hand-in-hand to provide as much information as possible to authorities, remain contactable and be open to the advice and feedback. Nobody is to blame in these situations, so it’s all about being open and honest and working together.
Being a franchisee, we were also lucky to be able to collaborate with the franchisor, Belgravia Group, for additional support and guidance. The company has many recreational venues across the country that have been affected by COVID-19 and are extremely familiar with the challenges of the last 15 months. Other sites in the company have been exposure sites during previous lockdowns, so there was a wealth of knowledge regarding who to contact and what needed to be done.
If you have a fellow business or mentor to reach out to as a sounding board, I highly recommend it.
2. Communicate honestly and regularly
My main concern was for my customers and staff, and making sure everyone that was at the site during the exposure period was notified and isolating.
We were due to open on that Monday afternoon so communication needed to be swift to notify both customers and staff of the closure and the evolving situation. Using social media, our website and direct emails and phone calls, we ensured everyone in our community was kept up to date.
The media are also another stakeholder you have to consider as they are understandably eager to receive updates. We were contacted by a range of media outlets for comments and information and the simplest way to manage that was to put a summary statement on our homepage covering the facts only, pointing readers to the DHHS media team for further information.
3. A COVID action plan is your best friend
Just like in any crisis, you need to move quickly in the moment but, understandably, you’re going to be stressed — so having a COVID action plan pre-prepared is really helpful.
Our plan included key information about who to contact — including government departments, cleaners, management/staff etc (with contact details ready to go) — and the key stages/actions that needed to take place. We also wrote some draft communications that we could modify according to the specifics. We constantly referred to this, especially within the first 24 hours.
4. What you do now will position you well
There were so many times when it was evident that our preparation and previous hard work paid off in the moment of crisis.
This was most obvious in the response from our customers, which was overwhelmingly positive. We invest in building a community-based swim school and during this situation our families have shown quite a lot of empathy to our situation; their messages of support have really helped us get through this tough time.
It helped that we had established modes of communication that our customers were already subscribed to or following — eDMs and social, primarily.
We were also rigorous with our COVIDSafe Plan, which is mandatory for all businesses to have in place. Keeping up to date with the cleaning of our premises is likely one of the reasons why we are yet to get a positive test from those that were exposed at our site.
The most important thing is not to panic. There are so many businesses dealing with the same situation and the DHHS are there to help.
This is likely the new normal of doing business, so having a plan — and understanding and improving your plan as you go — will be the key to minimising the business impact and helping keep our communities safe.